A different angle

My two year old has four cavities. Wendy Wisner, IBCLC and staff writer at Scary Mommy assures me that toddler cavities don’t make me a bad mother–really, but boy do I feel like a bad mother.

Just a few nights ago while brushing George’s teeth at a different angle, the evening light poured into his mouth spotlighting the brownish hue that discolors his top molars. Upon further investigation, I knew the prognosis wouldn’t be good. Anxiety fell upon me anticipating what kind of dental procedures my sweet little guy might have to endure.

Moreover, I was incredulous.

“B-b-but he’s breastfed!” my mind stammered.

The notion that breastfeeding made us untouchable was whisked away in that moment.

Yes, there are dental health benefits to breastfeeding. It encourages children’s mouths to develop properly. The mechanism of breastfeeding, where the nipple extends beyond the teeth, is different from the act of bottle-feeding where the contents pool and slosh over the teeth leaving children at risk for decay. Breastfeeding exposes babies to the flavors ingested by the mother, making it likely that they will accept a wider variety of complementary foods (assuming the breastfeeder or milk provider has a healthy, varied diet). Broccoli and bok choy are of course more mouth-friendly than donuts and potato chips. Breastmilk even contains lactoferrin, a component that kills strep mutans (the bacteria that causes tooth decay).

Because I revered breastfeeding as The Magic Elixir, I became less diligent in keeping up with George’s good dental hygiene. Rushed mornings shuffling my other little ones off to school distracted from thoroughly flossing and brushing his teeth. Our self-inflicted, fast-paced lifestyle lead to too many sugary yogurt tubes, raisin boxes and granola bars hurled into the back of the van for George to consume on the run.

My avoidance of fluoride entirely, because I’d worried (and still worry) about exposing my family to the compound,  likely left George’s teeth compromised too. My sentiment can partly be explained by earlier, collaborative Our Milky Way blog posts parts one and two about the danger of  invoking “natural” in health messaging.  

All of the above paired with his groove-y, tightly spaced chompers made the perfect environment for tooth decay.

Naturally, I had a lot of questions about what was to come. Mainly, after reading this study which found that prolonged breastfeeding increases the risk of having dental caries, could we keep nursing? Human milk alone does not cause dental caries, but with defects in the enamel, teeth are vulnerable and the protective effect of breastmilk is not enough to counteract the combined effect of the bacteria and the sugars in the milk. [https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/tooth-decay/]

At two-and-a-half, George only nurses once to fall asleep at night, but it’s very effective, and I wasn’t sure if I or he could give that up.

We had a phenomenal experience with the pediatric dentist. She was patient, calm, friendly and informative.

When I asked her about continuing to breastfeed at night, she squirmed and sighed in apprehension.

She said this: “Every seminar I attend, they tell me how bad nighttime nursing is for teeth. Leaving anything on the teeth overnight is not good. But, I know that nursing is a really special thing. I nursed all of my children passed three years. So, it’s a decision you’ll have to make, knowing that it is risky.”

I was satisfied. I knew George and I would have to tweak our nursing schedule, but we didn’t need to stop entirely.

So that night after his bath, I explained to him that we couldn’t have milk in bed, but that I was willing to nurse him before we flossed and brushed his teeth. He accepted and nursed for a few seconds on each side.

When we crawled into bed, he scooted himself under his airplane sheets, nuzzled onto my chest and hooked his little hands around my neck. My heart swelled. Having battled nursing aversion for longer than I haven’t, this closeness felt so different compared to the feeling of needing to flick him off of me. I was present in that moment versus seeking refuge, scrolling through my phone to distract myself from the discomfort.

Surely toddler cavities are not ideal, but this encounter helped evolve our breastfeeding relationship for the better.

Be proactive about your children’s dental health. Check out the CDC’s Children Oral Health page for basic information.

UNICEF offers a collection of baby-friendly research on dental health here.

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